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Jessamyn Stanley's 'Yoke' Breaks Down Being Black In The Thin, White Yoga World

Jessamyn Stanley (Cornell Watson)
Jessamyn Stanley (Cornell Watson)

AuthorJessamyn Stanley‘s new book “Yoke” is a series of honest, challenging, humorous and poignant essays about her life — mostly seen through the lens of her yoga practice.

The self-described Black, fat, queer yoga instructor tackles topics ranging from her weight, white supremacy, cultural appropriation and Blackness. The title comes from when Stanley tried writing that yoga yokes people together but instead mistakenly spelled it "yolk."

Stanley is concerned about her health but doesn’t want to wait to love her body. And mostly she’s concerned about race and appropriation: Why is a practice steeped in spirituality in India, represented by thin, white, American women wearing expensive yoga garb in wealthy neighborhoods?

In one teacher training early on, she was asked to watch a film of famous white actors waxing on about yoga’s spiritual roots. When Stanley said she was uncomfortable with watching the video, her teacher said they'd never thought about the appropriation of South Asian culture in yoga.

"No one else in my class had an issue with the video. I felt like I had caused the problem in the class," Stanley says. "But I feel like any time that the practice does not sit well with your spirit, there’s no reason to continue to be in that space."

In the chapter "White Guilt," Stanley says she explains that she's "not talking to white yoga people about race anymore." But in her conversation with host Robin Young at a virtual event from WBUR’s CitySpace, she admits that sometimes she wants to.

At one yoga event she attended, a practitioner raised his hand and said he doesn't feel comfortable being the only Black man in a class full of white women.

The question stunned Stanley, who says she often feels the same way but didn't vocalize it because of internalized racism. She questioned how this person can reckon with the complicated relationship between white women and Black men in a space where he's seeking inner acceptance.

"The yoga practitioner in me says that’s the yoga," she says. "But on a practical level, just as like person to person, I’m like nobody wants to feel that way. No one wants to feel excluded in that way."

That's where collective practice comes in, she says.

"Yoga has existed for thousands of years. And this is the first time where people have practiced collectively in this way," she says. "It’s so that we can heal these deep systemic problems that exist beyond the yoga world."

People fear feeling the "saddest, scariest thing" — internalized racism, she says.

To allow Black folks to feel comfortable, individual people need to be present with the realities of racism, she says.

In 2019, Stanley was told she’d be on the cover of the prestigious Yoga Journal. A team came to her studio in Durham, North Carolina, for a photo shoot.

But when she went to buy the magazine, she saw another woman on the cover. Stanley says it was the first time the magazine issued two covers for the same issue.

The experience hurt her because she was supposed to be the first fat, Black person on the cover of Yoga Journal — but she says it wasn't the first time she couldn't find a seat at the table. She grew up in a predominantly white town, went to an all-girls boarding high school and made a career for herself in a white, fatphobic industry.

Beyond feeling sad, Stanley felt introspective and started asking questions about things she doesn't like to think about.

"Why am I striving for the approval of this predominantly white institution? How much has that been a part of my life? Quite a bit, actually," she says. "If I really am honest with myself and I look back at my life, I knew that I was being tokenized by Yoga Journal. I was very comfortable with that. Why is that the case? Where does the desire to assimilate come from?"

Stanley says she's "always been fat." Her complicated relationship with food stems from the fact that her mother was bedridden for a lot of her childhood, forcing Stanley and her brother to cook themselves ramen noodles for dinner.

"These are the things that people don’t talk about with fat identity. Fat people are not allowed to be human," she says. "For me, accepting my fat body has been a really crucial part of owning who I am as a whole person."

Even if she lost weight, Stanley understands herself as fat. In the chapter "It's A Full-Time Job Loving Yourself," she talks about accepting the ups and downs that come with body acceptance and liberation.

Stay away from people who spew body negativity and fat shame, she says, and "unfollow people that are not making you feel good about yourself."

Stanley says she's changed since she last spoke with host Young in 2017 after the release of the yoga teacher's first book, "Every Body Yoga."

The bullying she experienced in middle school prepared her to deal with online negativity, she says.

"Whenever I receive negative feedback on social media, I really feel that that person is coming from a very sad place," she says. "It makes me want to hug that person honestly."

She's worked on trying not to hide parts of her body that she's been taught to feel ashamed of — a necessary part of wholly loving yourself, she says.

But as a child, Stanley tried to make herself as small as possible — refusing to take up space emotionally, physically or spiritually.

"I and many other people have been told you’re too big, too much, you’re doing too much," she says. "I’m sure it is a lot. I’m sure I am a lot. Light shines bright. It’s not going to be small and it is scary to people. And that’s OK."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘Yoke’

By Jessamyn Stanley

Teaching yoga on social media means fighting with your ego every day. Praying that it doesn't eventually swell so large that you turn into a blimp. It means checking, constantly checking. It means posting, constantly posting. It means creating, constantly creating. But always with the other person in mind, always with your followership riding shotgun. The follower begins to color your inner sight. It becomes hard to see yourself without them. It's hard to know yourself without them. It means constantly thinking of ways to do better, to do more than the other guy. It's a never-ending state of comparison—no amount of work is ever enough and the idea of "good enough" becomes a fantastical myth. I don't think it's possible to work in social media without these feelings eventually rising to the surface. Frankly, I don't think you can engage with social media at all without eventually arriving on this page.

But cave drawings and hieroglyphics were the original social media feed. And if Instagram had existed in pre-Partition India, B. K. S. Iyengar would've been the OG IG kid. Social media is an evolution of the show-and-telling that has pretty much always been a staple of human behavior. In social media, I'm embedded in the world of my people. Me and my people are obsessed with what we look like. We feed off the adoration of others. We look outside ourselves for the home that already exists within. We tranquilize and intoxicate ourselves to dull what it feels like to be alive. We're taking the edge off our constant repetition of lies and conflation. Our digital avatars become yet another mask atop our light. Me and my people are strangers to ourselves. In response, our children are absorbing this behavior and now their selfworth is irrevocably tied to the impact of social media.

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  • I'm always reminding myself to question the internet, question social media, question the art of curating my digital avatar at the expense of understanding my actual identity. We're in a digital war, and the mind is its battlefield. I think I expect my digital avatar to somehow be a better version of myself. I expect her to be better than the me I embody in real life. Against my better judgment, I respect royalty and expect hierarchy. I expect to be represented by who I hope to be rather than who I know myself to be, and I admire the avatars of those who pretend to be what feels just out of my reach, rather than what lives beneath my surface.

    I think the internet has dramatically evolved how spiritual rhetoric will be conveyed, just like how the written word changed and evolved spiritual discourse. Everything changed when bitches got access to pen and paper. What had previously only been conveyed orally could suddenly be spread and shared with the masses. But I think mystics and skeptics of earlier generations would've needed to write fewer books if they'd had access to the internet. Fuck the number of people that can read your book. Think of how many people can casually engage with your Instagram posts. It becomes possible to influence an entire generation before breakfast with the same energy you're using to take a shit.

    It's true that sometimes yoga can become solely about followership but, if I'm being honest, I think that's probably fine. I think every version of the practice is probably fine, because the message always ends up being the same. The destination is always the same. Vapid as it is, tap dancing for Instagram likes still got me to self acceptance. Social media provides an accurate, shocking, and embarrassing mirror in which to view my truth, and by standing on my internet soapbox, people I will never meet are still introduced to a practice that will inevitably introduce them to themselves as well. It may seem like the digital age trivializes yoga, but is anything about the spread of compassion ever really trivial?

    Excerpt from ‘Yoke’ by Jessamyn Stanley. Copyright © 2021 by Workman Publishing. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

    This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.